Who Was William Shakespeare?


William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a little English town called Stratford-Upon-Avon, about 100 miles northwest of London, two days’ hard journey by horseback.

He was born in the 6th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st, daughter of Henry VIII, whom you might remember being famous for his 6 wives, and also having broken with Rome and the Catholic church over the issue of his divorces.

Shakespeare was born into an England that was no longer officially Catholic, but it also wasn’t quite Protestant.

Elizabeth was protestant herself, so that was the official religion of the land.  But the official religion had reversed itself several times in the previous decade, from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic and back to Protestant again, and you have to believe most adults were at least a little angry about the changes, and younger generations probably confused or maybe even a little indifferent.

The main difference as far as the people could tell would have been the central importance of the mass in the Catholic faith, the sacraments and all the symbols of faith, and plainness and simplicity of the Protestant services in which faith alone determined where you went in the afterlife.  No purgatory or praying to saints among the Protestants.  So, with each change of faith, buckets of whitewash paint or soap and water were hauled out to redo the church interiors, stained glass windows would have been swapped out for plain.  But it was a bit more destructive than that.  Beautiful stained glass windows with images of the saints, alters, and even the priest’s vestments  were all destroyed when a Protestants monarch came to power.

Elizabeth was gentler in enforcing her religious laws than her half siblings.  She didn’t start out burning people at the stake.  “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” she claimed, but they must conform outwardly to the official religion.  Unfortunately, the Pope didn’t see things this way.  Shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, he issued a papal bull, an order, calling on English Catholics to rise up overthrow the queen.  She was forced to get a little tougher.  Little William lived during a time when Catholic priests still ministering the Catholic faith were arrested, drawn and quartered.  He knew some of them personally.

This was the world William was born into.

He was the eldest son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.  John was a glover by trade, a profitable profession that required a license to practice.  Licensing kept prices high and foreign imports out.  John Shakespeare also held various positions in the town’s government over the years.  His first honored position was official ale taster, he was responsible for assuring no fancy flavorings were added to good English beer, and that for safety, all was stored properly in sealed jugs, sort of like the FDA today.

As time went on, Shakespeare’s father was promoted to higher positions in the town, all the way up to the town mayor.  Along the way, he would have been involved in enforcing all laws of the land, collecting fines for violating laws, and figuring out what to do when bad behavior didn’t fit any particular law.  It was pretty hard NOT to break a law in 16th century England – Of course you had to attend church services regularly, that could fetch you a hefty fine, but that was just the beginning.  Your duck, sheep and children had to be properly corralled, trash had to be kept in its proper place, and, harshest of all, town meetings had to close with brotherly love for your fellow man.  They must have been a cantankerous bunch to have laws like that!

Shakespeare’s father also would have been responsible for making sure symbols of the Catholic faith were removed from the local churches, not an easy task considering he himself like all his fellow Englishmen had just been forced to destroy symbols of Protestanism under Queen Mary and would have just been a Catholic.  By that time, the English had grown wise. Rather than destroying the old symbols, they were just whitewashed with a white paint that could be scrubbed away at the next turnover.

Among all the jobs he had, surely the most relevant for our little William’s background was two jobs – the hiring of school teachers for the town’s young men at the King’s New School, and granting licenses to the travelling actors who rolled through the English countryside throughout the year.  His father’s special position would have entitled him to view the plays before granting the license, and we can just imagine the sheer excitement of little Will, standing between this father’s legs, watching comedies, tragedies and morality plays as a very young man.

So, to William.  William was one of 8 children born to John and Mary Shakespeare, 4 girls and 4 boys. His brother’s all died before him, and only one of his sisters lived to adulthood, Joan, who lived the longest of all the Shakespeare children, to the ripe old age of 77.  It’s too bad, given how much more we’d love to know about Will’s life in Stratford, that an early Shakespeare biographer who had written in his notes, “Interview Joan Shakespeare” followed through too late on his plan.  By the time he got there, she had died.

Will Shakespeare attended grammar school at the King’s New School in Stratford, as would have been proper for any son of a government official.  It was a privilege, no doubt, and, a tedium.  School was, well, let’s put it this way.  Learning his lessons was not filled with outdoor play time, not mathematics, history, science, geography, or even English.  Schools were designed for one purpose: to train clergy, and what young men planning on entering the university to become part of the clergy was Latin.  So, Latin is what he learned.

William studied Latin, day in and day out, 6 in the morning (7 in winter) until 5 in the evening, 6 days a week, 12 months a year.  Latin grammar, Latin rhetoric and everything that could be read and memorized in Latin.  One book  that must have been particularly enticing for the little William was “100 ways to say thank you for your letter” in Latin.  Entire grammar books had to be memorized.  And if you didn’t learn your Latin, there was always the threat of violence.  One educational theorist of the time speculated that the buttocks must have been created to facilitate the learning of Latin. This wasn’t just an interesting theory.  In order to graduate from university as a teacher, you had to demonstrate an ability to flog students properly.

Luckily for our soon to be playwright, his lesson plans Latin included some great writers and books.

The poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Vergil’s Aneid were probably the most important influences for Shakespeare as a writer.

In all creation, nothing endures, all is in endless flux,

Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by,

And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,

A rolling stream, and streams can never stay,

So time flies on, flies and follows,

Always, forever, new.

He read historians like Julius Caesar and Plutarch, in Latin of course, and the roman playwrights Plautus and Terrence, who wrote comedy, and Seneca, the originator of the slaughter and revenge tragedy.  Teachers made their students memorize entire plays, take parts and perform all through the year, to enforce the learning of the Latin grammar of course.  I can just imagine little Will excitedly getting his role, memorizing his lines, and getting up to perform.

Tedious or not, there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, and Will found good in it.  He learned to memorize, a skill that would come in handy.  He learned to love language.  And in all the tedium I’ll bet he found punning and double meanings a great relief from the boredom of Latin lesson.  And probably the best part, from our point of view, is that he never studied English – what a gift the school gave him – he would invent words with total abandon as a playwright in London!

William left school at age 12, never to return to formal schooling.  He was homeschooled, self- educated.  He worked, likely as a hired tutor for a who didn’t want to send their children to the official schools for religious reasons, and, like all young men, he fell in love.  Shakespeare’s love was Anne Hathaway, and he married her at age 18.

Here is the sonnet he wrote for her, a simple piece of poetry, where you’ll hear his first very awkward, pun on the name hathaway:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make

Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’

To me that languished for her sake,

But when she saw my woeful state

Straight in her heart did mercy come….

And taught her thus anew to greet…

‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,

And saved my life, saying ‘not you’.

How that did the trick is one of the true miracles of the world.  They were married, and by the time Will was 21 he had three children with Anne, Suzanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith.

While his children were still young, the Will Shakespeare decided to go to London to try his hand at acting. My best guess, based on all I’ve read, is that acting and writing was what the young Shakespeare wanted to do. He had the talent, he knew how to act, and he threw himself into whatever he did.  Travelling acting troops passed through town all the time, and often needed local talent to fill in for missing actors.  One of these groups was the Lord Strange’s men, and this group included many young actors Shakespeare would eventually come to know and work with in London and write his greatest plays and parts for.  William Sly, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Richard Burbage, Burbage would go on to become the greatest actor of the Elizabethan stage the man whom Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote all his great parts – Richard III, Shylock, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello.

So Shakespeare left his home in Stratford, probably thinking London was a risky choice for him, and certainly no place for a wife and children.

His progress in London was remarkable.  Within just half dozen years, Wm had made a name for himself in London, and was drawing the ire of fellow playwrights educated at the university.  One very irritated writer on his deathbed called him , a player “beautified with the feathers of other – that is, playwrights – an upstart crow and jack of all trades who thought he could bombast out blank verse as well as the best playwrights of the day, like Christopher Marlowe.  By 1592, age 28, he’d written the three parts of Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors (which he took straight out a Plautus comedy he’d read and memorized as a boy), Two Gentlemen of Verona, the bloody tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and was on his way to becoming the most popular playwright in London.

But his success was not inevitable.  There were a lot of lucky circumstances and hard choices yet to come.  I’ll share one lucky circumstance and two important choices he had yet to make.

First, the lucky circumstance.  The Queen. Elizabeth was the great protector of the realm, of the Protestant faith, and actors.  Actors were not well regarded at that time.  Vagabonds, masterless men, caterpillars of society sucking the juice out of hard working families and producing nothing of value, and worse.  Here’s how one irate minister put it:


Go to the theater, if you will learn how to be false, deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, hot to play to obtain one’s love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, murder, poison, disobey and rebel against princes, consume treasures prodigally, ransack and spoil cities, blaspheme, sing filthy songs of love, speak filthily, and be proud about it.  It is a horror that a man can sit happily for two hours to hear a play and cannot bear to sit one hour to hear a sermon.

The London city council, run mostly by Puritanical zealots, periodically issued proclamations closing the theaters, to which Queen Elizabeth would issue a counter proclamation reopening them.  This went on for some years until Elizabeth came up with a brilliant political move – she proclaimed actors must be permitted to prepare year round for their performances at the royal court, and must therefore be permitted to rehearse in front of public audiences and charge a fee to support themselves.  The city could not come up with a good counterargument, and the back and forth squabbling was settled.

Now, Shakespeare’s important choices.  There were two big ones.

In the fall of 1592, Plague broke out in London.  It was bad.  At one point, the death toll in London reached 1,500 men, women and children a week, almost 1% of the population in a single week.  The authorities ordered all businesses closed to prevent the spread of the disease, and that included the theaters.  Though businesses reopened after several months, the theaters did not.  The London authorities were of course looking for excuses to keep them closed, and they remained closed for two years. During that time, actors and playwrights were left without work and toured the countryside for work.  Shakespeare, however, chose not to.  He decided instead to remain in London and try his hand at more literary and respected forms of writing – the epic poem. He found himself a patron from the nobility, the earl of Southhampton, and he spent two years writing for his patron.  He wrote two poems, and both were immediate successes.  For the first time, Shakespeare received wide praise, not from the lower sort who attended the theater, but the educated classes, the university men whose respect he’d always sought.   Acting and playwrighting, particularly for the popular theater, were hardly considered noble or even respectable in those days.

So when the plague finally wore itself out and the city announced the theaters would reopen in the spring of 1594, Shakespeare had a tough decision to make.  To rejoin his group of actors and continue on the risky path of writing and acting for the popular theater, or remain with his wealthy sponsor and continue as a poet of the upper classes.  It may look like an easy decision in retrospect, considering how successful he ended up being, but remember, nothing is inevitable.

When they returned to town, Shakespeare chose to rejoin his fellow actors and close friends. That summer, they formed an acting company called the Chamberlain’s Men. This turned out to be a group of actors unlike any other in history.  Unlike other acting groups in London that continually formed and fell apart, this group of fine actors remained together for the rest of Shakespeare’s career. They performed all Shakespeare’s greatest plays.  And they took care of each other.

The second important decision Shakespeare made was in the winter of 1599, another 8 plays along in his career, but still before all of his great tragedies.  The Chamberlain’s men had once again run into some bad luck.  Not plague or any act of god, but landlord dispute.  The theater they were working in, called The Theater, was owned by the lead actor’s father, but he’d built it on another man’s land.  The landlord, apparently suddenly discovering he hated the theater, refused to renegotiate the lease and had shut out the Ch men.  He was planning on dismantling the theater and building something else on the property.  What to do?

The group made a risky decision.  While Allen was on vacation, in the dead of winter, the streets covered with snow, the actors decided to take matters into their own hands.  They arrived in late December with axes and picks in hand from their prop box, and dismantled the theater. The timbers they put into hiding for the rest of the winter.  Risky business sot be sure, and they were taken to court, but they had an even riskier plan in mind.  For the first time in history, these actors were going to form a wholly actor-owned theater and acting company.  Six men would contribute the start-up resources, one of them Will Shakespeare and another the lead actor Richard Burbage. They would own, operate, act in and profit from, their new Theater which they would call, The Globe.  The location would be on the other side of the Thames, outside the reach of the London authorities.

Sure enough, the next spring, up went he Globe.  Among the first plays performed there: Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Henry V, and Hamlet.  Shakespeare had only 10 years left as a London playwright, and his greatest plays still ahead of him. Of course they performed the plays of many other playwrights – Shakespeare’s output wouldn’t have been enough to supply a full working theater all year long.  But Shakespeare’s plays were the most popular.

Shakespeare’s career as a playwright and actor in London spanned some 20 years, in the 1590s and the first decade of the 1600s.  He retired in 1611, and spent the last 5 years of his life living in Stratford with his wife and two surviving daughters and managing his business affairs.  He died in 1616, on the same day he was born, April 23, St. George’s day, and is buried in the church there.

During his life time, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, that we know of, 154 sonnets and 2 epic poems.  An enormous accomplishment, to be sure. In his memory, 7 years after he died, two of his closest friends, John Hemminges and Henry Condell gathered all his plays and published them in what is known as the Folio, a collection of 36 plays. 

Our debt to these men is great.  Without their efforts, half of Shakespeare plays would have been lost forever, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and Coriolanus.

Before I open the floor to questions, a couple of things are worth reading off the dedication pages of the Folio. I read these only so you can see how well regarded he was in his own time.

Here is the dedication of his fellow actors and friends, John Hemminges and Henry Condell:

He was a happy imitator of Nature, a most gentle expresser of it.  His mind and hand went together, and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.  But it is not our province, who only gather his works and give them you, to praise him.  It is yours that read him.  And there we hope, to your diverse capacities, you will find enough, both to draw and hold you.  For his wit can no more lie hid than it could be lost.  Read him, therefore, and again, and again.  And if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger.  And then we leave you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can be your guides.  If you need them not, you can lead yourselves, and others.  Such Readers we wish him. 

Now, maybe it’s obvious his friends would love him.  I think even Shakespeare would have found the lengthy dedication poem of his long time rival playwright, Ben Jonson much more surprising.  Jonson you have to realize felt that Shakespeare to be a fine playwright, but not of the educated sort.  Here’s a little of what he said:

I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. 

He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature.

And I confess his writings to be such,

As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much…

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part;
For though the Poets matter Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion. And, so he,
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

and strike a second heat upon the Muses anvil…:

For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne.

What he’s saying is that William Shakespeare was a talent, but that his talent was not just a gift of nature, but the reward of an awful lot of thought, reworking and sweat.

Now, that’s just an introduction to who this man was and how he came to be.